Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider talks fast. Really, really fast. So fast, in fact, that a quarter of the way through our hour-plus interview, the connection cuts out and — I'm not making this up – my office phone's old-school black-on-green display starts blinking the word "Congestion."
"Whoa, so you don't have enough bandwidth for my words?" marvels Schneider when I call back.
Has Schneider always talked this fast? "Yes, I'm from South Africa," he says in the helium-tinged voice found on Apples in Stereo albums since 1995. "But I'm also really excitable right now, because you asked me about Jeff Lynne and I'm really into him."
You won't notice any South African influence in Schneider's music, given that his family moved to Louisiana when he was 6, but the shadow of Electric Light Orchestra main man Jeff Lynne looms large. That's especially the case on more recent tracks like "Energy" — which was featured in a Pepsi commercial last year — and this year's Travellers in Space and Time album.
Schneider, who now lives in Kentucky, has come a long way since he and fellow University of Colorado at Boulder students formed the Apples as an offshoot of the Elephant 6 indie collective, which included similarly eccentric bands like Of Montreal and Neutral Milk Hotel. In the following interview, he talks about his trajectory from lo-fi chamber pop to synthesized space-rock.
Indy: Of all your albums, Travellers is the one that shows the most ELO influence, with the strings and Vocoders and some of the songwriting. What made you feel like now was the time to let that out?
RS: Well, in general, I operate heavily on hero worship, and I kind of always have. Like, I love the Beatles and my obsession with Brian Wilson is what got the Apples started. And my taste is always changing, as everybody's is.
I'm almost 40, and back when I was in my 20s, I didn't like ELO. I felt like they were way too slick at the time. Also, I had a prejudice against the disco quality of it. Plus, it seemed overly hi-fi to me.
I'll note at this point that I like all of those things now. And I'll also note that now, when I listen to ELO, it's actually less hi-fi than the new Apples record. [Laughs.] So my tolerance for fidelity increased as I was able to achieve better and better fidelity. And we reached the point where what the Apples wanted to do with the songs on the last album was beyond what I myself could achieve. Like the drum sound that I get — that crunchy, compressed, breaking-up, awesome drum sound that I love — wasn't the right drum sound for our last album or the new album. So we went to Trout Studios in Brooklyn. But it's still almost entirely analog.
Indy: What did you record the basic tracks on?
RS: We actually recorded on the 16-track tape machine that Paul McCartney recorded McCartney II on, the exact same machine. [Studio owner] Bryce Goggin inherited it somehow. It was a 1-inch 8-track machine that Paul McCartney used to own, and it's called Pauly, it had a name tag on it that says Pauly. And so they converted it to a 2-inch 16-track, or somebody did, and that's what we recorded on.
So we're running through the same circuitry as McCartney II, which is pretty awesome to think about. And we used all analog synths and real guitars and real pianos. Except for the editing capability of ProTools, we definitely could have recorded it in the '70s.
Indy: OK, but you're not going to graduate to Phil Collins, are you?
RS: Oh God, no. I'm happy with 1978, '79, I don't want to go into the '80s. If it reached the point where I was incorporating Phil Collins drum sounds into my records, I'm pretty sure I would cease to exist. It would be like a loop in time or something. It would cancel out my purpose for having ever made music.
But anyway, just about when I was turning 30, I became obsessed with Jeff Lynne and ELO after hearing "Living Thing" on the radio somewhere. And I had this experience like a time machine, where suddenly I was 8 years old at a roller skating birthday party in like 1980, listening to "Living Thing." And it brought such a great feeling of joy and sort of childhood to me, while at the same time being so futuristic. The melodies and the chord progressions, it's so soulful and great.
And suddenly it all made sense to me: He wasn't being disco, he was trying to be R&B. And he was incorporating as much '50s music as he is the Beatles. Like basically, if you took Jeff Lynne's songwriting, you could break it down into John Lennon's licks and '50s chord progression. And basically if you have those two things, you can write songs like Jeff Lynne. And I don't want to write songs like Jeff Lynne. I want to write songs like Brian Wilson.
I'm just joking. I want to write songs like me. And as a pop songwriter, I want to be something of a revivalist and something of a futurist. I want to take the old traditions and I want to launch it into the future.
Indy: As a kid, what was the first song you remember recording?
RS: The first real song I ever wrote? I was 15 and I wrote a song called "The Greatest Passion Play." At the time I was obsessed with Jethro Tull. And so the song was like eight minutes long and it was basically a complete analysis of all of religion and society and all of the ills therein. [Laughs.] It's hilariously philosophical and hilariously poetic, and it's really long. I'm not sure that it's good. Although my mom still says it's the best song I ever wrote.
Indy: So you peaked at 15.
RS: I know, I peaked on my first four-track recording.
Indy: One more question. What would the elitist 20-year-old in you have thought about your music being used in a Pepsi commercial?
RS: OK, there are two sides to the 20-year-old me. There was the rejecting popular culture side, because I hated the current popular culture, and then there was the romanticizing the past side. And in romanticizing the past, I've always loved "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," that Coca-Cola song?
My whole life, I'd always cited that when I was young as one of the best songs ever written. It moved me so much as a child, those commercials on TV. [Laughs.] It sounds so shallow to say it. But I had always kind of held in my mind that that was sort of a perfect pop song. And it's funny, because when I wrote "Energy," my wife told me, she said, "This sounds like that Coca-Cola song." It doesn't sound like it musically, but it does have that kind of simple sort of sing-along quality. And so it was almost like fate that either Coke or Pepsi would pick it up.
Indy: And which do you prefer?
RS: I really like Coke better, but Pepsi now has put out this drink called Pepsi Throwback. It's like Pepsi Cola was before they started using corn syrup, it has just regular cane sugar instead. And when you drink it, it's all gritty tasting and it tastes like childhood to me.
Indy: Like Mexican Coke.
RS: It's like Mexican Coke, but different. Mexican Coke has its own sort of recipe, but this is the recipe of commercial United States '70s soda.
Indy: Oh, like Lebanese 7-Up then?
RS: That, I would say, is exactly what it's like. Lebanese 7-Up. [Laughs.]